How does the Montessori approach to education work?

After she and her husband welcomed their first child, Nichole Chigoy found herself daydreaming about how best to raise her daughter and how she might be able to do so in the company of other young mothers. She’d long been drawn to twentieth-century educator Maria Montessori’s principles and teachings about early childhood education, and she’d trained and served as a Montessori guide in both public and private schools for several years. In 2009 she and close friend Lissadell Greene opened the Montessori-based Natural Child Learning Community for children two-and-a-half to five years old.

Here, Nichole demystifies the Montessori approach for parents who are interested in finding out more about Montessori education.

What do you find important about the educational principles of Maria Montessori when it comes to caring for young children?

She said that her life work was about developing not a system of education but rather an aid to life—to living. As she explained, “A child can only develop by means of experience in his environment. We call such experience work.” Therefore, in a Montessori environment you will see children very involved in the daily upkeep of the environment. A Montessori environment also allows a child to choose from a wide range of activities. These activities, often referred to as the practical life activities, are the cornerstone to the philosophy. In this environment a child can be as independent as possible. In part, this means respecting a child’s ability and right to concentrate. Concentration helps to develop creative thought. If a child is engaged and focused in an activity, then it is important to allow that experience to happen without interruption from others.

What would a child’s typical day look like in a Montessori learning environment?

Children often have free choice of activity. Children may be working or playing independently, each on their own activity, such as art, geography, block play, language or math activity, practical life, etc. Children may help in the preparation of a snack. As a group, the children may sing, read stories, discuss [related] topics, learn poems, and do group movement activities. Children may participate in a nature craft or cooking activity if they want to do so. When lunchtime arrives, the children will be in charge of setting up the lunch tables, often using real tablecloths, ceramic dishes, glass tumblers, and cloth napkins. The children who are able to count may figure out how many settings are needed and where to place each setting. After eating and visiting together, the children may pack away their leftovers, wash their dishes, and go out into the backyard to tend to the garden or the chickens and, of course, to play.

You have trained as a Montessori guide. What does that role encompass in a Montessori learning environment?

One of greatest responsibilities of the Montessori guide is to observe each child. As a guide, I watch, listen, and try to attune myself to each child’s specific interests. Children may be engaged in a wide variety of activities, from geography puzzle maps, to practical life activities such as flower arranging or washing a table or their pair of shoes, to sculpting with Play-Doh or learning the sounds of the alphabet by playing sound games or tracing letters made of sandpaper. My role then is to link the children to the environment so that they can develop and grow to their greatest potential—to nourish and tend their love of learning. I seek to help the children develop a sense of joy and wonder in their hearts [and] a sense of independence and confidence in who they are and what they are capable of accomplishing. . . . If children have the opportunity to fall in love with their world and its inhabitants in their early years, they will grow up wanting to contribute, to help, to preserve what is they already love so dearly.

Holly Crenshaw and Nichole Chigoy with the kids

What do you think makes a Montessori-based learning environment so valuable for young children?

Children are natural learners. A Montessori learning environment is based on the premise that all children, no matter the external factors to their existence, culture, socioeconomic level, etc., have particular tendencies to develop to their greatest potential. Montessori environments are carefully designed to encourage these natural human tendencies to flourish. Children learn by doing. By participating in family and community life, in a variety of meaningful activities, children develop concentration, control over their bodies, discipline, and a joy of contribution. Young children have a great capacity to contribute in daily life. They have tremendous desire to bake, garden, sweep, mop, dust, scrub, fold, and on and on. Contrary to what some people believe, this type of practical life activity lays the foundation for all other learning to come. These early years are the foundation of the rest of one’s life.

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